Women’s portrait in woman’s constancy

Nayara Stefanie Mandarino Silva

Dados da edição:

Mafuá, Florianópolis, Santa Catarina, Brasil, n. 31, 2019. ISSNe: 1806-2555.

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Sobre os autor(es):

Nayara Stefanie Mandarino Silva
Universidade Federal de Sergipe
Centro de Educação e Ciências Humanas
São Cristóvão – Sergipe, Brasil

ABSTRACT: Women’s work in literature is not as substantial as men’s. The feminine figure, on the contrary, is often described and narrated in men’s production as objects. John Donne is one of the writers who often talks about women, like in “Woman’s Constancy”. Acknowledging that literature must be revisited and women’s image examined and deconstructed, this paper aims at analyzing how women are portrayed in Donne’s poem “Woman’s Constancy”, considering the context of this work. The theoretical basis of this paper includes Jordão (2007), Spurná (2012), and Zunder (1988). Finally, I conclude that Donne paints women as untrustworthy and deceivers who cannot be trusted by men. In addition, the female character is not given a choice, it is the man’s decision to end the relationship. This poem puts men as superior to women through the dehumanization of the feminine figure and her transformation in an idea.

KEYWORDS: Women; John Donne; Woman’s Constancy.

RESUMO: A produção feminina na literatura não é tão substancial quanto a masculina. A mulher é, ao contrário, frequentemente descrita e narrada na produção de escritores do sexo masculino como objetos. John Donne é um dos autores que, muitas vezes, fala de mulheres em suas obras, como em “Woman’s Constancy”. Reconhecendo que a literatura deve ser revisitada e que a imagem das mulheres deve ser examinada e descontruída, este artigo tem como objetivo analisar como as mulheres são retratadas no poema de Donne, “Woman’s Constancy”, considerando o contexto da obra. A base teórica deste artigo inclui Jordão (2007), Spurná (2012), e Zunder (1988). Por fim, é concluído que Donne retrata as mulheres como indignas de confiança e enganadoras que não podem receber a confiança dos homens. Além disso, a personagem feminina não tem escolha, é decisão do homem terminar ou não o relacionamento. O poema sob análise coloca o homem como superior à mulher através de sua desumanização e transformação em uma ideia.

PALAVRAS-CHAVE: Mulheres; John Donne; Woman’s Constancy.



Women’s literary production can be considered as marginal literature; because these works are the artistic expression of a minority group, and, thus, often not included in the literary canon (ZINANI, 2014). The difference between how men’s and women’s works are regarded is directly connected to cultural differences that result in gender inequality (FREIRE, 2015). When analyzing some of the Brazilian literary works, Farias et al. (2015) get to the conclusion that women are displaced to a submissive place in this field because the masculine voice prevails.

Very often women are the topic of the poems written by men. In such writings, an image of the feminine sex is constructed by the masculine one. This image differs from the real woman (RAJAN, 1993); that is, men write about imagined women who are created stemming from their subjectivity and masculine perspective.

John Donne is one of the authors who talks about women in many of his poems, such as “Woman’s Constancy”, which is analyzed in this paper. He is considered to be part of the literary canon and provides many representations of the female figure in the context of the 17th century.

The aim of this paper is, therefore, to analyze how women are portrayed in Donne’s poem “Woman’s Constancy”. In order to do so, first, I make some considerations on the author’s life and work, and call attention to the changes in English society and how this is reflected in his pieces. In the next topic, I talk about the poem under analysis, taking its context and main characteristics as a starting point, then, moving to the study of women’s representation in this poem.


John Donne was born between January and June 1572 in London, England, and died in March 1631, 59 years old, in the same place. Throughout his life, he wrote in different genres such as satire, love poetry, elegy, sermon, and about many topics, such as love, sexuality, religion and death.

John Donne is credited to the initiation of the metaphysical poetry in England, for that he is considered one of the most important writers of his time. Granqvist (1975) mentions the Encyclopedia Britannica (1877) as one of Donne’s most notable works. The characteristics of his work include use of metaphors, care for language, abrupt openings, ironies, and paradoxes. Donne’s work has been studied from many perspectives. From a biological point of view, Winkelman (2009) analyzes sighs and tears in Donne’s poetry, whereas Bell (2006) discusses the writer’s work through the lens of gender.

Zunder (1988) includes the author in the second generation of Elizabethan writers. The literary period can be called Jacobian Period, named after king James I, the ruling king of England in Donne’s most active years as a writer. The referred time is considered a sequence of the Elizabethan Period[2] because the production of plays continued to be developed, and there were no significant changes on the literary production from one period to another. However, England, as a country and as a society, was going through a process of changes in Donne’s time.

It was a period of economic dependence on those above him; of a series of attempts, between 1607 and 1614, to regain government office through patronage, all of them unsuccessful; and of a decision, in January 1615, when he was ordained, and when he virtually ceased writing poetry, to pursue a career in the Church of England. The society that Donne was born into was one that was undergoing basic change. There was, to begin with, the rise of capitalism. At the beginning of the sixteenth century England was no longer feudal. The Middle Ages were over. By the last decades of the century – the 1580s and 1590s – England was capitalist. The effects of this transformation were enormous. There was the rise of humanism, and the secularisation of education. There was the rise of Protestanism, and the dislocation from continental Europe, in particular the confrontation with Catholic Spain. There was the rise of nationalism, and the growth of a strong, centralised state, focused on the monarchy and the court. There was the rise of Parliament; the beginning of English imperialism; and the rise of science (ZUNDER, 1988, p. 78-79).

Some of Donne’s satires reflect the changes in society, such as the shifts in religion. John Donne lived in a period in which many events involving theology and politics were occurring in both England and France. For instance, in England, Catholics were persecuted as the minority group, something historically unusual. These events affected not only those who lived in such countries, but the world, Donne’s family included. They were a Roman Catholic family, but in his poetry, it is possible to notice that his relationship with religion was tumultuous and passionate.

Although many social aspects had changed, the social essence of the medieval period remained: hierarchy, and women portrayed as inferior; despite the fact that England had its golden age under the rule of a woman, Elizabeth Tudor.

According to Spurná (2012, p. 82), James I emphasized masculinity during his reign. Just like Elizabeth did, he declared himself married to England, however, the author considers “James’s public displays of love towards his male favourites” a big problem. His actions put men in the position of subjects in the court once again, among the results, women were reduced in court. Spurná (2012, p. 83) states that

Elizabeth during her reign widened the cultural split in the category of women – if women were not like her, they were “inherently wicked and licentious” (Ibid.) and even the queen was often a victim of rumours of promiscuity. But her female presence on the throne made public expression of misogyny unacceptable. Yet it lived in its underground exile and was getting only stronger in the last decade of Elizabeth’s reign, when her Cult was getting more and more ridiculous and her control over sexual ideology was too long.

The author, therefore, argues that misogyny existed when Elizabeth was queen, but it was subtler. When James I took over the throne, public expression of misogyny was possible again. Therefore, in literature, women were characters of men’s writings, being described from their male point of view. This was not something new, but it became more frequent and intensive in this period, when compared to the golden age.

Donne’s work reflects the ideology of his time because knowledge is socially constructed, therefore, it is embedded in context (JORDÃO, 2007). This means that his writings are not neutral, as no discourse is[3]. There are ideologies that permeate his work because he wrote from his perspectives, his readings of the world, which were shaped by his experiences and interactions with others. This leads us to the conclusion that the writer’s idea of women was also influenced by the context in which he was inserted.


According to the enotes site, “Woman’s Constancy”, a 17-line lyric poem, was printed first in Poems, By J. D. with Elegies on the Authors Death, in 1663. However, the poem circulated before the mentioned date; it may have been written between 1592 and 1598. In the poem, the poetic persona addresses a woman that spent the night with him, and he believes that she will leave him in the morning. He lists excuses the woman might use when she does leave. In this context, Donne uses three persuasive techniques: “disdainfully framing the response; systematically proving claims through the use of contract law; choosing not to refute the opposing argument” (ELUPROGRAM, w/d, p. 4). In the end of the poem, the reader may have the impression that the poetic persona won the argument, only to realize “that there was no risk in providing the woman with these excuses since the outcome of the argument was never in doubt” (ELUPROGRAM, w/d, p. 7).

The poem can be considered dramatic because it involves one person speaking directly to another; it is like a monologue in the sense that it expresses one person’s point of view. “Woman’s Constancy” features inquisitive language that suggests the desire for answers due to the circumstances of secular love. However, the author talks about love in a sarcastic and satirical way. In addition, the poem presents the theme of mutability, common in the Renaissance. Finally, it is worth mentioning that the poem contrasts with “The indifferent”, another of Donne’s work, that puts the poetic persona as the one who is leaving.

A woman is the addressed person in the poem, she is the object of the speakers’ lines. In this sense, as mentioned, the reader has access to only one perspective: the man’s. In the next subtopic, the discussion regards the way in which women are presented in the poem under analysis.

Women in Woman’s Constancy


Now thou has loved me one whole day,
Tomorrow when you leav’st, what wilt thou say?
Wilt thou then antedate some new-made vow?
Or say that now
We are not just those persons which we were?
Or, that oaths made in reverential fear
Of Love, and his wrath, any may forswear?
Or, as true deaths true marriages untie,
So lovers’ contracts, images of those,
Bind but till sleep, death’s image, them unloose?
Or, your own end to justify,
For having purposed change and falsehood, you
Can have no way but falsehood to be true?
Vain lunatic, against these ‘scapes I could
Dispute and conquer, if I would,
Which I abstain to do,
For by tomorrow, I may think so too. (DONNE, 1896).[4]

Regarding Donne’s work, Bell (1983, p. 113) defends that he provides “an empathetic, imaginative, and varied response to the lady’s point of view”, arguing that the writer is unable to ignore women’s feelings. Bell (1983) supports her claim by analyzing Donne’s Songs and Sonets in which he writes “Break of Day” from the female’s perspective. When addressing “Woman’s Constancy”, she states that the man in the poem is under the influence of Luna – the moon, also female – that attempts to make the man reconsider his own thoughts towards women. Bell (1983, p. 119), therefore, claims that the speaker of the poem is a woman, considering the excerpt “vain lunatic” (l. 14). She concludes by saying that the poem presents both man’s and woman’s perspective, however, it is the lady who makes her arguments “all the more tantalizing and suasive.” Similarly, Flynn (1989) defends that many of the poems written by Donne were directed to a female audience because women’s feelings and thoughts are addressed by the poet. The author brings out, as well, the discussion over the gender of the “Woman’s Constancy” speaker – mentioning both the possibility of the speaker being a male and a female. Douds (1937, p. 1053) is one of the authors who understands that the poetic persona is a man who predicts what the woman will say. The last-mentioned author highlights that in the poem under analysis in this paper there is a dissonance effect, for “lovers are generally presumed to talk in a different strain.” In other words, the reader may consider the lines uncommon to type of speaker (a man or a woman in the 17th) which causes a dissonance effect.

Harvey (1989, p. 133) discusses the eroticism of the feminine voice and concludes that

just as the muse provides inspiration in a figure distanced from the poet and over whom he purports to exert only partial control, so too is feminine voice a distanced figure, an image of surrogacy, whose viability depends finally upon the silence of actual women

This means that in both possibilities regarding the speaker in “Woman’s Constancy” – male or female – women are imagined from a man’s perspective, simply because the author is a man. In this paper I understand that the speaker is male.

About how women are portrayed in Donne’s work, Knoieczny (1992, p. 17-18) claims that

Donne responds to types, uses them [women] to fuel his argument but basically seems uninterested in dearly defining the character of woman. […] In reading the poems, we are struck by the fact that the woman is featureless and formless, just as the landscape is barren. We do experience women through Donne’s perceptions and attitudes, but we are not given the visual basis for seeing women in the poems.

In “Woman’s Constancy”, the female figure is a “vain lunatic”, but the reader knows only about her undecided personality, no details about her are given, no picture of her can be drawn in the reader’s mind. Therefore, there is not a woman, but an idea of one. Knoieczy (1992) argues that this is due to the fact that Donne dominates the lines in the poem, and consequently, he dominates her. He adds that, because he does not specify women, using only ideas of them, he is not concerned about one woman, but with all of them in general. He does not want to be possessed by them, it is quite the opposite. By talking about women in a broader sense, Donne transforms them into ideal beings, neutralizing their humanity. He does not describe the woman during the poem, all the reader has is an idea.

Regarding the desire for domination, Spurná (2012, p. 85) argues – based on Allman (1999) – that men are usually concerned with asserting their dominance over other ones. When there is a man who dominates the government, as it was the case of England, ruled by James I, men “find themselves sharing the subordinate position with women”. In this sense it is like their masculinity is denied to them.

In the poem under analysis, Donne thinks about the woman leaving his bed and anticipates the arguments she may use. In the following passage, the theme of mutability is shown through the speaker’s contemplation of the possibility of the woman leaving his bed. In the end, he dismisses these thoughts by concluding that he may leave her in the morning.

Vain lunatic, against these ‘scapes I could
Dispute and conquer, if I would,
Which I abstain to do,
For by tomorrow, I may think so too (DONNE, 1896).

The speaker is trying to be the one who decides to leave, as if the decision of leaving must be his, not hers. Because he may not want her in the morning, he “abstains” (l. 16) to make her continue to love him. The woman, then, is under his control because he can “conquer” (l. 15) her, if he feels like doing it in the next day, or he may not want her anymore, and let her go. The speaker, then, paints himself as the one who makes the decisions, he “dominates the discussion much as he manipulates place and woman; that even in poems that praise love, there is still an element of superiority” (KNOIECZNY, 1992, p. 23).

In “Woman’s Constancy” yet another vision of women is presented: the idea of compliant women. He questions the possibility of a woman being in constant devotion to her man by mentioning her excuses sarcastically. In his first argument, “Wilt thou then antedate some new-made vow?” (l. 3), he questions her capacity of keeping a vow. He continues his reasoning and adds that she may say that “now we are not just those persons which we were”, meaning that the relationship has changed, and they do not have the same feelings as they once did. In this sense, Donne draws an idea of women as untrustworthy and deceptive, who are unable to fully devote themselves to a man. Very often, in literature, women are associated with sin. They are responsible for taking men away from their path as heroes and honesty man, for instance, in the Bible, Eve makes Adam eat the forbidden apple, that is, she leads him to evil. Another examples can be found in Medieval narratives of the Arthurian Cycle (BRAEM, 2015), for instance, in The quest for the holy grail, women are weaker and more vulnerable to sin, so they fall into temptation and take men with them, like Guinevere who causes “the dissolution of kingdoms, the ruin of King Arthur, and the death of so many knights.”[5]

Simone de Beauvoir (1970) argues that the world has always been dominated by men, according to her

when two human categories find themselves in the presence of each other, each of them wants to impose to the other their sovereignty; when both sustain their claims, it is created between them, be it in hostility, in friendship, always in tension, a relation of reciprocity. If one of them is privileged, it domains the other and does everything in order to keep it under oppression. (1970, p. 181).[6]

The world is unequal when it comes to gender. Men are usually put above women, especially in previous centuries. This dichotomy can be seen in literature, not only because most of the acknowledged works are authored by men, but because women were often portrayed as objects or as the evil temptation that distract men from the right path.


The objective of this paper is to analyze how women are portrayed in “Woman’s Constancy”. As a conclusion, it is possible to say that women are presented in the poem as untrustworthy, deceivers who cannot be loyal to men. The speaker also gives a woman no choice in leaving him, in the sense that he puts himself as the one who can persuade her to love him for more than one day, but he does not do it because he may do not want her in the next day. The man is, therefore, portrayed as superior, the one who makes the decisions and he should not trust women, the evil temptation. By creating an idealization of women, they are objectified and dehumanized, therefore, permitting misogyny. From another perspective – one in which the speaker of the poem is considered to be a woman – the image of women is still built by a man and ideologically influenced by the social context and understanding of what it means to be a woman in the 17th century.

This kind of portrayal of women is frequent in literature, and it must be questioned. However, it is important that literary works are revisited and problematized, so prejudice and sexism are not naturalized.


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[1] I thank Elaine Maria Santos for advising me throughout the process of writing this paper, and Emily Strobaugh for revising it.

[2] The Elizabethan Period goes from 1558 to 1603. It is associated with the reign of Elizabeth Tudor, daughter of Henry VIII. The literary production that occurred under her rule, is grouped in the Elizabethan Period. According to Spurná (2012), drama is prominent in this period, and she adds that “to summarize the development, the plays of Shakespeare and other Elizabethan authors were created on the background of the liturgy of the Church, medieval scholarship, sermons, folk-customs, the realism and humour of the members of the trade-guilds, the influence of classical, Italian, and French literature, the demand of the public to be entertained, individual genius, and the social and religious background of six hundred years.” (p. 65)

[3] In this paper, discourse is understood in accordance with Foucault’s (2012) perspective in which discourses are ideological and permeated by power relationships. In this sense, power is distributed unequally.

[4] This is the complete poem under analysis in the paper.

[5] All of the translations from Portuguese to English are the author’s responsibility. Original version of the quote: “causa da dissolução de reinos, da ruína do rei Artur e das mortes de tantos cavaleiros”. (BRAEM, 2015, p. 30).

[6] This quote was also translated from Portuguese to English by the author. Original version: quando duas categorias humanas se acham em presença, cada uma delas quer impor à outra sua soberania; quando ambas estão em estado de sustentar a reivindicação, cria-se entre elas, seja na hostilidade, seja na amizade, sempre na tensão, uma relação de reciprocidade. Se uma das duas é privilegiada, ela domina a outra e tudo faz para mantê-la na opressão. (1970, p. 81).